A small fraction of my Hellblazer collection
This week I made a momentous decision I thought I would never take. A volte-face so contrary to my core being that it is on a par with Charles I giving royal assent to the Petition of Right in 1628. A U-turn so jarring that it makes the current Coalition government look like the most decisive administration of the post-war era.
Yes, this week I cancelled my standing order for Constantine, as you probably guessed from the intro, which to be honest underplayed the importance of this decision.
For the uninitiated Constantine is a monthly title published by DC Comics, chronicling the dark dealings of John Constantine, a Liverpudlian magician, occult detective and con man first introduced during Alan Moore’s game-changing Swamp Thing run. He was initially inserted into panels as a recurring background character by uber Police fans Stephen R Bissette and John Totleben, who wanted to draw a character resembling Sting.
He was officially introduced in an issue drawn by Totleben and Rick Vietch, and evolved into a major character in Swamp Thing before spilling out into the wider DC Universe. His popularity saw the launch of spin-off title Hellblazer – originally Hellraiser, but the imminent release of the iconic film of the same name prompted a last-minute change – published under the Vertigo imprint. The dark noir of John Constantine’s world was soon established as a different continuity where superheroes didn’t exist.
The title ran for 300 issues, featuring the talent of writers such as Jamie Delano, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Paul Jenkins, Garth Ennis, Mike Carey, Brian Azzarello and Peter Milligan. DC wound the title down recently as part of the editorial edict that Vertigo would service creator-owned characters only, and Constantine was integrated back into the DCU.
I found this decision disappointing. I got back into comics at University, having abandoned them in a teenage ‘I’m too old for such things’ fit of pique. It wasn’t the adventures of Batman or the X-Men that lured me back into the fold, but the more adult offerings of Vertigo titles like Preacher and The Sandman. I first read Hellblazer when a friend lent me the trade of Garth Ennis’ Fear and Loathing arc, and discovered a whole-new kind of book different from the traditional good versus evil narratives of the comics of my youth. In John Constantine I found the noir anti-hero I craved, having spent my non-comics wildnerness years reading the hard-boiled works of James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler etc.
Constantine became my favourite character in comics, apart from perhaps Daredevil. And along with the blind vigilante of Hell’s Kitchen, JC** was one of only two characters whose books I would pick up no matter who was writing them. However, this theory had never really been put to the test up until now.
As much as I was disappointed that the Hellblazer Constantine was being replaced by the more 12A-rated, younger DCU version, I ultimately understood the decision. He is, after all, the intellectual property of DC Comics, not a creator-owned character like Garth Ennis’ Jesse Custer***, and they have the right to do whatever they wish with him. Plus, Constantine had actually been reintroduced to the DCU about a year before the end of Hellblazer, and several months before the title’s cancellation was announced. This created the situation where the Vertigo version existed in a different continuity was ageing in real-time (the character was born in 1953, and had been the lead singer of a Sex Pistols-esque punk band in the late-seventies).
The DCU version was of an indeterminate younger age, subject to the floating timescale that all comic characters are, and was firmly set in the more fantastical world of superheroes and extra-terrestrial messiahs who wear blue spandex and red capes. While different versions of the same character existing in different continuities is par for the course in comics, DC were prepping the relaunch of their entire line with the New 52 initiative, the latest in a long-line of masochistic and often counter-productive efforts to clean-up the cluttered continuity of their titles. Therefore, the decision to have a single, definitive version of the character is entirely logical.
Initially, I was excited by the concept of the new series. As I said, I would always read whatever title John Constantine was headlining. I was initially concerned when DC switched the creative team from what was solicited before the first issue had even been published, but was pleased that the new writer was Jeff Lemire, one of the current scene’s brightest talents who has stated in several interviews that Constantine is his favourite character.
After seven issues, I threw in the towel. The first arc was by no means a travesty, but it suffered from several problems. Whereas Lemire and his co-writer Ray Fawkes worked very hard to establish the personality of Constantine as the same cynical anti-hero Vertigo readers had embraced, the world-building surrounding the character never really clicked.
Mouth like a docker
The North American duo’s inability to give John the convincing voice of a foul-mouthed and snarky Englishman was a sticking point, but ultimately what sunk the series for me was the overall lack of direction. The first five issues were all done-in-one stories, and while there was an overreaching arc pitching John against Sargon the Sorcerer, the delivery felt bitty. Worse of all, the title got dragged into the Trinity War crossover, and the arc concluded almost as an afterthought during a tie-in issue featuring Shazam.
Still, I had faith in the writers, and thought much of the issues of the first run were teething problems that could be ironed out later. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the announcement that the next four issues were part of an 18-part crossover with three other titles that I wasn’t reading. Piss. Right. Off.
Now, a lot of the decisive factors that led me to cancel the book were gripes that have become part and parcel of mainstream comics – bloated, cynical crossovers that force readers to buy more titles than they may be budgeting for in austere times and DC’s chequered editorial decision-making – but the fact is I was sticking to the title out of blind loyalty. There are tonnes of other acclaimed superhero books out there I could be reading – Matt Fraction’s Haweye run for instance – or even better, any of the dazzling creator-owned series which Image have been churning out to great acclaim.
Veteran writer Greg Rucka recently had an epiphany which caused him to turn his back on the Big Two of Marvel and DC, in which he urged readers to ‘follow the creators, not the characters’. As I get older and I have more important things to spend money on, and am less prone to obeying the OCD impulses of my inner geek, this sounds like wisdom worth heeding.
* I would recommend to any Hellblazer fan Carey’s Felix Castor series of novels, which tread very similar ground and are in my opinion far better than his run on the title
** I doubt that choice of initial on Moore’s part was coincidental
*** Those initials again